Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Out To Sea

Hurricane Fran, September, 1996
Bermuda was threatened by tropical storm Leslie earlier this week - Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel got a free trip to the islands for the occasion, and I thought it fairly amusing as he stood there on Elbow Beach, a gentle breeze caressing his storm jacket - the sense of urgency just wasn't there. And well, even if Leslie didn't blow east of the islands, even if she had crossed the fishhook sea mount, it wouldn't have been a great story. Bermuda knows how to ride out a storm with her buried power lines, her underground water tanks, and all the shutters closed tight. In the two years we lived there, we never got to see a hurricane, but we were always ready. The worst we saw were winter gales and hellish thunderstorms, but never a hurricane. Oddly, I rode out Hurricane Fran just a few months before I moved to Bermuda. My husband was already out on the island, and I was home alone in Durham. There was barely any warning from the authorities, it was before the internet, before the Weather Channel tweeted every cloud, every rain drop, every sun spot - I went to work that day, and I remember exactly what I bought at the grocery store on my way home, a quart of milk and a bag of kitty litter, and not one person in the store with me was stocking up, preparing for disaster. The last thing I remember was Greg Fischel of WRAL-TV saying on the tv with the image of hurricane Fran at his back as she bared down on the coastal plain, "Folks this is going to be a little worse than we thought," and the lights went out, right on cue, and they didn't come back on for almost three weeks.

Even when the lights went out, I didn't panic. I just took the dog and the cats to bed with me, they were my only companions with my husband out on the island. And we tucked in for the night. I awoke two or three hours later to my brave hound lab Jack straddled over me in the bed in the pitch black growling fiercely at the windows. And outside Fran raged, all Category 3 of her - there was a weird light that came from her belly and I sat up and held Jack as he growled and growled, his hackles raised from shoulder to tail. He was determined to keep that storm outside and away from me. I could see the pine trees down in the park near our home twisting and blowing like egg beaters, I could hear things cracking and exploding, and the wind revved like a NASCAR racing mobile right outside my window. But there was no race car, no motorcycle, that was Fran - her sustained winds at sixty miles an hour, and then the nauseating gusts over 100 miles per hour, some said we had 115, that came in two minute waves, I began to count the seconds until the gusts died down, 1-Mississippi, 2-Mississippi, and around 6-Missippi I could hear the giving way of trees and unknown objects. I felt the gusts in my lower gut, my whole body was being crushed with barometric pressure.

I lived in a typical Durham mill house, and it had an attic. About an hour into Fran, the wind not letting up, I began to hear the attic windows at either end of the house slamming open and shut. I was frozen to the bed, mesmerized by the sight out the windows of the bedroom, Jack wouldn't let me move. The cats paced up and down the hallway, occasionally coming in as though we might join them, they made guttural meows, harmonizing with Fran. And then the roof began to moan, like every damn sea faring movie I had ever seen, my roof sounded like a ship straining on the swells of a perfect storm, the house was yawing and popping all around me. Jack sat and stared at the ceiling and began to growl again, I felt my ears popping over and over. Were we going to lose our roof? The attic windows slammed and slammed, my heart could not beat any faster, and more things cracked and more things exploded and I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life, despite my dog, who was trying with all his might to tell the storm to go to another neighborhood. We sat there all night, and I think the eye of Fran came an hour before daylight and sleep would not be had. I picked up the phone to call my husband in Bermuda, but it was dead. The back end of Fran finished us off, and just when I thought I might die of sheer fright, she was gone. And the sun came out and I noticed all the windows were plastered with leaves - Fran had paper mached my house with summer leaves, autumn was not necessary that year. I put Jack's leash on and we ventured out the back door. The large old pin oak in the back yard was still standing, but a poplar had been pulled up and out of the ground and lay along one side of the house. My car was also paper mached like a Cristo with leaves and sticks and debris. Jack and I ventured out to the street and there were all my neighbors, like zombies, with their little children in pajamas, I think we were all in our pajamas, and shock, and we all had the same expression, one of complete awe and surprise. The damage was unbelievable. Trees, now Durham is a city of trees, big trees, and it seemed as though they had been kicked down and around by the gods. One long ranch style house less than a block from me had an enormous loblolly pine entering at one end of the house and exiting at the other end - it had dissected the home along it's center line. The family was miraculously unhurt, and they stood in the yard, in complete mental comas. We had all been blind sided. The city went into chaos over the next couple of weeks, there were massive lines for water and batteries and food. I remember waiting five hours for a small can of propane for my camp stove. The phone service was returned within a day or two and I could talk to my panicked husband who was way out to sea, he was helpless to help me. There were curfews and rationing. I had an elderly neighbor, she was Polish and spoke no English, and every night and every morning her live-in nurse, also Polish, would bring a single pot of something to cook on my camp stove. She had seen war, she knew how to cook in a war, I had only camped, but it was enough to get me through. The nights were the worst, my fear of the dark returned with a terrible vengeance, there weren't enough flashlights to relieve my anxiety.

And then, only four months later I was living in the middle of the ocean, with my sweet husband, and my hurricane sniffing dog and two cats who never wanted to live at sea. And the world began to open up to me - because Expats go through that in the first few months. You are cast out from the safe walls of your home country and you begin to look back and you see your country in a very different light. You read international newspapers and the shipping news and listen to the BBC and your country is suddenly not the only place on earth - you realize how sheltered you were, and it changes you forever.

Sometimes, we watched The Weather Channel and they would show great colorful maps of the eastern seaboard of the US and twirling tropical systems and we would squint and nowhere would we see Bermuda in the ocean, in the place she was supposed to be, just 600 miles due east of Cape Hatteras, and frequently they would console the East Coasters by telling them, "not to worry, this storm will be going out to sea." And we would smile as Jim Cantore or one of his lovely weather girl colleagues would gesture toward Bermuda, yes, we were Out to Sea, thank goodness.

1 comment:

thepoorwayfarer said...

What a fantastic description of a hurricane. I love weather!